The Offerings of Cain and Abel Genesis 4:3-7

We are informed that, “in process of time, Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock, and of the fat thereof.” If the record stopped here, this proceeding would doubtless meet our approbation, as exceedingly  suitable and becoming. What could be more proper than that Cain, who was a cultivator, should bring his fruits, or that Abel, who was a shepherd, should bring his sheep—each offering perfectly appropriate to the condition and pursuits of the offerer.

But let us read on: “And the Lord had respect to Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and his offering he had no respect,” This sets us to inquire where lay the root of offence in Cain’s offering, and of acceptance in Abel’s? Was the offering of Cain in itself objectionable, or was the offence in the mind and temper of the. offerer? We must turn to the New Testament for more light on this matter. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, that it was “by faith” that “Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain;” Note: Heb_11:4.] and another apostle, evidently referring to this offering, plainly states, that Cain’s works were evil and his brother’s righteous. Note: 1Jn_3:12.] Cain had, therefore, in this matter, an untoward disposition, and displayed a lack of faith. But, still, was this shown in the nature of the offering itself, or in the frame of mind with which it was presented? Whatsoever, in the things of God, is not of faith is sin; and, beyond question, Abel himself might have sinned by the deficiency of faith, even in offering a proper oblation. We are led to think, however, that God had appointed a certain manner of approach to him; and that to approach him in other manner than this was offensive and rebellious.

What strikes us first, is the remarkable fact of the existence of sacrifice at this early period, so soon after the fall. This implies further communications of God’s will to man than we have as yet been distinctly acquainted with. The usage of sacrifice—the idea that the life-blood of an animal could be an acceptable offering to God, could hardly have arisen in this early and unbloody age without a special intimation of some kind from Heaven. It is so repugnant to all the notions that we associate with that age, that the idea of its human origin at once strikes the mind as a moral  impossibility. If, then, this rite had been so early inculcated—it would seem immediately after the fall—some idea of its meaning must have been afforded, that it might seem reasonable and proper—that it might become an expression of faith among a simple-minded people. If any explanation of its purport were supplied, that explanation could have been only one: that man was a sinner; that without shedding of blood there was no remission of sin; that although, indeed, the blood of animals could not take away sin, yet that thereby they could declare their guiltiness before God, and express their faith and hope in the atonement thereafter to be offered by “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” We know that this was the purport of the sacrifices under the law, and as these sacrifices were the same which had previously existed, they had no doubt, then, the same meaning attached to them. Now the need of this form of faith was not peculiar to the keepers of sheep; it has been practiced by men of all kinds of occupation, in all ages. With this clue, we may therefore be able to detect the causes of the ill reception which Cain’s offering found.

Was it not that he declined to enter into the spirit of the sacrificial institution; and while willing to bring a thank-offering in testimony of the Lord’s goodness, refused to offer that acknowledgment of sin, and to express that need of atonement by blood, which the animal sacrifice expressed? If we contend that the offence of Cain lay at all in the difference of his offering from that of Abel, we cannot see any other satisfactory explanation but that which this supposition affords. This explanation does not, indeed, as some allege, necessarily grow out of the mere difference; for although we must ever maintain that sacrifice had a Divine origin, designed to set forth the atonement by the death of Christ, yet having found existence, it was not always offered in that high meaning, but was often simply a thank-offering. As a thank-offering, the offering of Cain might have been as acceptable as that of Abel. If, therefore, we lay any stress upon the difference—and it is impossible to avoid doing so,  we must allow that the time when the offering was made—“at the end of days,” for such is the meaning of the words rendered “in process of time”—was some commemorative day; perhaps of the fall, perhaps a Sabbath, in which a sacrifice of atonement was expected and usually rendered. That Cain refused to render this service, but brought his vegetable products, in which he may be presumed to have taken much pride—as if an acknowledgment of the Lord’s goodness in the bounties of nature was all that could be drawn from him—seems to meet all the difficulties of the case, and to correspond to all the New Testament allusions to it.

But how did the Lord testify his approval of Abel’s offering, and his rejection of Cain’s? The mode most in accordance with scripture examples is that the accepted offering was consumed by supernatural fire. It may be that in these most primitive times, when the intercourse of God with man seems to have been still more immediate than it afterwards became, this sign of acceptance was always afforded, and perhaps this instance was the first in which it had been withheld. This would intimate that Cain had previously, under the influence of his father, made proper offerings, and now ventures upon a new and a wrong thing. If, as some suppose, and as the narrative seems to imply, the first family still remained in the neighborhood of Eden, in presence of the “flaming sword,” or sword-like flame, which precluded all return to that happy seat, it is by no means unlikely, that this flame was regarded as the Shechinah, or symbol of the Divine presence, like the “glory of the Lord” in after times; and that the flame was darted therefrom to consume the accepted offering. There are many facts in the corruptions of Paganism which seem to owe their origin to the circumstances of man’s second condition on the outside of Eden, but in presence of the sacred symbols—the cherubim and the flaming sword, by which it was shut in.

There does not seem to us anything to indicate that this war, the first occasion that offerings had been made by Cain and Abel. Considering the length of time since the fall, all  probability is against that notion. There must, therefore have been something new—some innovation on the part of Cain—to account for the higher favor with which Abel’s offering was received, It was probably an act of rebellion, the risings of a proud and haughty spirit against an act of humiliation and contrition for sin. The deep displeasure evinced by Cain shows that this was no common matter, and that some strong principle is involved. That it was of the nature which has been indicated, will be placed beyond question, if we receive an interpretation of the Lord’s remonstrance, which has strong claims to consideration. In the common version, God says to Cain, “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.” This rendering of the last clause has the advantage of a popular idiom in the English language, which gives it an adventitious force and signification. In the marginal reading it has, instead of “sin,” “the punishment of sin;” but the Hebrew word means in many places a sin-offering, that is, an animal victim; and that being understood here, the words will admit, and we incline to think that they require, a signification which may be thus periphrastically expressed—“If thou doest not well, lo, there now lieth at thy very door a lamb, by offering which for thy sin thou mayest acceptably express thy contrition and obtain forgiveness.” This sense is not so new as some think it; and it has now obtained the sanction of many sound scholars and theologians; and it appears to settle the question involved in this offering in conformity with the view of the subject which has seemed to us the most probable.